Help! I’m Struggling with the Doctrine of Predestination
This article is part of the Help! series.
What Is Predestination?
The doctrine of predestination is the teaching that before the creation of the world, God decided the eternal destiny of all rational creatures, that is, all angels and all human beings. “Some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.” 1 God’s choice to save certain sinners by grace is called election, and his choice to leave certain sinners to the damnation they deserve is reprobation. Predestination is part of God’s decree, his eternal purpose in which he has decided all that will take place, ordaining everything for the manifestation of his glory.
If you have struggled with this doctrine, you are not alone. A brilliant young man named Jonathan Edwards once wrestled with what he then viewed as “a horrible doctrine,” though he later became fully satisfied with it and found himself overwhelmed with the sweet beauty of “the King eternal” (1 Tim. 1:17). There are various reasons why people find it difficult to accept the idea that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell. As we will see, each of these reasons starts with a biblical truth about predestination and draws from it a false inference that leads to experiential struggles of faith.
Divisive, Unbiblical Speculation?
The doctrine of predestination is not the central theme of the Bible; the center is Christ and salvation through repentance and faith in him (Luke 24:44–47; 2 Tim. 3:15). Furthermore, debates about predestination have sometimes divided Christians and even split churches. Therefore, people might conclude that it is a doctrine best avoided.
Christians might reason, We can’t understand such deep theological questions. Let’s just stick to what the Bible says. Christians need to stop arguing about theology and tell the world about Jesus. Such reasoning leads people to fear predestination and to avoid studying what God’s word says about it.
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The King Who Does Not Care?
The doctrine of predestination portrays God as an absolute monarch who does as he pleases in all creation (Ps. 135:6) and determines the eternal destiny of each person (Rom. 9:22–23). In particular, God’s election to salvation in no way depends on what the elect do or decide (Rom. 9:11). Some people may think that this doctrine implies that God does not care about people or justice. God, it is said, damns to hell countless people regardless of whether they live righteous or wicked lives.
Consequently, someone may question whether the God of predestination is a good and loving Lord. Why wouldn’t he choose to save everyone if he has the power to do so? Such doubts could cause a person to have difficulty praying to God or rejoicing in his love. Worse yet, someone might consider the God of predestination to be more of a devil than a divine Savior, and thus might reject him.
Fatalism with No Place for Human Choice and Effort?
According to the doctrine of predestination, it is God’s will, not man’s will, that controls all things in time and space (Deut. 4:35; Eph. 1:11), including the individual history of each person (Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:30). People sometimes infer that absolute predestination implies fatalism: our choices are an illusion, and our efforts to change ourselves and our world are futile.
Fatalism destroys motivation. Someone might say, I have no need to repent of my sins and trust in Christ. If God has predestined me to salvation, then I will be saved regardless of what I do. Similarly, why should a believer strive against sin and labor to grow in holiness, when all is predestined? Someone else might argue, We should not exert ourselves to call sinners to Christ. God will surely save his elect. The poisonous fruit of fatalism is spiritual deadness and backsliding into sin, much to the dishonor of the gospel.
Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1
Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley
The first volume in the Reformed Systematic Theology series draws on the historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the first 2 of 8 central points of systematic theology with an accessible, comprehensive, and experiential approach.
Uncertainty that Undermines Assurance of Salvation?
The doctrine of predestination teaches that everyone who is saved was chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13). People might conclude that no one can know for sure whether he is saved and will go to heaven. They might reason as follows: Only God’s chosen ones will be saved. God’s decree of election is hidden in his secret will or eternal plan. Therefore, it is impossible to know if you are saved, unless you receive a special sign from God.
Consequently, some Christians who believe in predestination may suffer greatly from anxiety over their eternal destiny. They may seek assurance in mystical experiences or a legalistic pursuit of perfection. Or they might sink into despair.
What horrible struggles people can experience over the doctrine of predestination! However, each one of these struggles is based on a wrong understanding of what the Bible teaches about God’s predestination of his saints. The biblical doctrine nurtures humility, peace, certainty, and hope in Christ. Let us return to each of these points and see how this is so.
Predestination: A Major Biblical Teaching about Salvation by Grace Alone
While it is true that predestination is not the central theme of the holy Scriptures, it is a major biblical doctrine, not human speculation. We find references to predestination and election unto salvation throughout the New Testament (Matt. 22:14; 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 4:11–12; Luke 10:21–22; 18:7; John 15:16, 19; Acts 4:28; 13:48; Rom. 8:29–30, Rom. 8:33; Rom. 9:6–23; Rom. 11:5, Rom. 11:7, Rom. 11:28; Rom. 16:13; 1 Cor. 1:27–28; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:4–5; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; James 2:5; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:10; 2 John 1, 13; Rev. 17:14). The Holy Spirit was not ashamed of this doctrine when he inspired the writing of God’s word; neither should we be ashamed of it.
Predestination is an important feature of the larger doctrine of salvation by grace alone (Rom. 11:5–6). It makes clear that God saves only by his power, wisdom, and righteousness, not man’s. If the loving, faithful teaching of grace alone offends people—and we must be gracious in how we present the doctrines of grace—then we may not retreat from this doctrine to please men, because it is essential to show salvation is for the glory of God alone.
The doctrine of predestination is not the central theme of the Bible; the center is Christ and salvation through repentance and faith in him.
Predestination by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
The God of predestination is truly the almighty King, but also the loving and righteous Father who “predestined us unto the adoption of children” (Eph. 1:5). Predestination is an act of infinite fatherly love, taking outsiders into his family forever. God’s election of sinners apart from any merit of their own directs salvation “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:6). However, God is not indifferent to justice. Far from it! For he predestined his chosen ones to salvation “by Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5), requiring that Christ satisfy his justice by “redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7).
We do not understand why God has chosen some and not others. However, Why didn’t God choose to save everyone? is the wrong question to ask. In light of man’s heinous rebellion against his Maker, we should ask, Why didn’t God damn everyone to hell? The astounding fact is not that God damns sinners to hell, but that he saves and reconciles sinners to himself. Unconditional election is the friend—not the enemy—of sinners, for without it no one would be saved. In the end, however, we must bow before God’s rights as our Maker. When people accuse God of injustice because of predestination, Paul replies, “Hath not the potter power over the clay?” (Rom. 9:21). The Creator has the right to do what he pleases with his creatures.
Predestination Executed through Human Choices and Efforts
For those who struggle with predestination because they think that it implies fatalism, we acknowledge that God’s will controls all his creatures and all their acts, but assert as well that God decrees not only the end but also the means by which that end is achieved. Paul says, “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel” (2 Thess. 2:13). The means by which God saves his elect include the outward work of preaching the gospel, and the inward work of the Spirit upon the mind, heart, and will of those who hear the gospel preached.
Far from depriving human choices and actions of all significance, predestination infuses them with eternal meaning. Paul calls upon believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). We can rejoice when people turn to the Lord, for the power of the gospel to produce enduring faith, love, and hope demonstrates their “election of God” (1 Thess. 1:3). Every step of Christian obedience is undergirded by God’s sovereign purpose, for “he hath chosen us . . . that we should be holy” (Eph. 1:4). The armies of the Lamb overcome this world, for they are “called, and chosen, and faithful” (Rev. 17:14).
Predestination Securing Assurance Now and Forever
The doctrine of predestination does teach that only God’s elect will be saved. That does not imply that we can’t know for certain whether we are saved. Rather, God’s free gift of “all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him [i.e., Christ Jesus] that hath called us to glory and virtue” enables believers to “to make your calling and election sure” by growing in knowledge, faith, and practical holiness (2 Pet. 1:3–10).
Paul explains that predestination initiates a golden chain of divine acts bound together in the purpose of God: “whom he did predestine, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). If God has effectually “called” a person through the gospel and “justified” him through faith, then he can be sure that he will be “glorified” with Christ.
Therefore, while we understand why people may struggle with the doctrine of predestination, a Spirit-illuminated faith in this doctrine leads God’s children to embrace God’s promises, obey God’s will, and rejoice in the hope of God’s glory through Jesus Christ our Lord. For this reason, we should strive to know with accuracy and clarity all that God has revealed about this precious truth and teach it to others.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.3
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley are authors of Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume 1: Revelation and God.
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